Seismic testing dead for 2020, removing potential SC offshore oil search for now

The Post and Courier
October 2, 2020

By Chloe Johnson

A lawsuit contesting permits for companies to search for oil and gas off the coast of South Carolina is drawing to a close as the federal government says there’s no way to extend the permits in the short term.

The suit — really two combined cases in federal court in Charleston — was recently thrown into question when President Donald Trump issued a memo banning oil drilling off the coast of South Carolina.

The Department of Commerce argued in court the move did not stop the five companies that had asked to do seismic testing, which is the first step required before extracting underwater fuels.

But the government said in a Thursday hearing there’s no way to extend the permits after they expire on Nov. 30, meaning they will be moot before the case can go to trial.

Industry groups said it was impossible to get boats in the water before that date.

U.S. District Judge Richard Gergel has not issued an order ending the litigation, but “as a practical matter, the case is over,” said Catherine Wannamaker, an attorney for the Southern Environmental Law Center.

SELC represents nine environmental groups in one of the two original suits.

“We’re excited about this. It’s been a long battle for us and it’s a big victory for our waters and right whales,” she said.

Amy Armstrong of the S.C. Environmental Law Project was less certain. Her firm represents 16 towns and the Small Business Chamber of Commerce in the other involved suit.

She said it seems clear that seismic testing has been scuttled for this year, but the disposition of the case isn’t final until Gergel issues an order.

“You’ve got to wait until the ink’s dry,” she said.

A spokeswoman for industry group International Association of Geophysical Contractors declined to comment on the case, as did a spokesman for the National Marine Fisheries Services, which issued the permits at the center of the litigation.

There is nothing stopping the exploration companies from re-applying for permits to search in the new year.

Two types of permits are required to conduct the work. The permits at the center of the case were called Incidental Harassment Authorizations, or basically, permission to disturb sea life during seismic work.

“Since these companies can apply again, we need a more permanent, long-term ban on offshore drilling and seismic testing at the federal level,” said Alan Hancock of the Coastal Conservation League.

Seismic testing has been a target of environmental groups because it’s needed for oil exploration, but also because the work has been shown to harm marine animals like the endangered North Atlantic right whale. The testing involves shooting air blasts at the ocean floor to map what lies underneath.

Frank Maisano, an energy expert with Bracewell LLP, said that this spring’s stay-at-home orders and sudden energy policy changes have made it hard for the industry to plan for new development. Maisano’s firm represents fossil fuel developers and some clean energy companies.

“The absolute hole that the market and the driving market and the oil and gas market fell into … really has hindered any potential planning you could have done short term,” he said.

One company involved in the Charleston case had withdrawn its request to search for oil and gas in early September before the president’s drilling moratorium.

Scroll to Top